God, or Not, on the F Train

Recently, I was in New York for a week, working in Manhattan and staying in Brooklyn. With colleagues at NYU, we were setting up a new project to submit clemency petitions for federal prisoners serving overly long sentences for non-violent drug crimes. I traveled back and forth on the F train.

I like to have something to read on the train, so I stepped into a beautiful little storefront called Terrace Books that was near . It's the kind of place that is hard to find in some places, a long, narrow space with carefully curated selections displayed on facing shelves. For three dollars I bought a used copy of Elie Wiesel's Night, a memoir of his time in Nazi concentration camps. I had read the book many years ago, when I found it in a "free book" box in the Baylor philosophy department, and decided to read it again.

Of course, it is not an easy book, and perhaps not a good choice for the train. "Unbearably painful" was part of a description of the book on the back cover, and the blurb on the front described the "terrifying power" of the story within. I realized that this was not beach reading, but it was compact and compelling; a good fit for New York.

On the train, I found myself sitting next to a Hasidic man who was also reading. Next to him was an Indian woman reading a book, and next to her was an elderly Chinese man reading a book. I felt at home. The train wends through Brooklyn's neighborhood -- Coney Island, Gravesend, Bensonhurst, Midwood, Borough Park, Kensington, Windsor Terrace, Park Slope, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and DUMBO -- so the train carried a remarkable variety of people. I would look up occasionally to canvass my surroundings and the new entrants around me at each stop.

Wiesel was 15 when the Hungarians turned over half a million Jews to the Nazi's machinery of death. He traveled through several concentration and extermination camps with his father, only to have his father die after months of torment. The horrors he witnessed are nearly unspeakable, but it is important and remarkable that he spoke of them.

In the course of the book, Wiesel sees the worst of humanity, and it leads him away from the God that had been at the center of his life: "But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy."

Many have read Night, but fewer know that the autobiographical book (Wiesel calls it his "deposition") is the first in a trilogy. The second book, Dawn, is a novel which carries the story in a fictional direction during and after the Holocaust. The third book, Day, is also a fictional account of the same person, who is now in New York City and is hit by a cab. It is an odd trajectory, to go from truth in such a grounded, horrifying way, on to imagined, later outcomes. Or maybe it isn't. Don't we all do that, at times? We process the worst things by imagining not a remaking of the core event, but ourselves. It is a way of survival, of coming out to meaning. No one can deny that there was a Holocaust, but we sometimes imagine ways we could transcend the horrors that people -- even ourselves -- can do. It is a way of finding hope. When I arrived in Manhattan, I set to my work with greater focus.

As I finished a particularly grueling passage of the book, I wanted to turn to the Hasidic man next to me on the F train and hear his thoughts. He was two inches away, his tall black hat inclined towards his own book. How could his book about God co-exist with this one? He had a way. But I did not ask.

Back home in Minnesota, the lakes are sparkling, and throngs of people will soon be flying around them on bikes. The rains have brought everything to a brilliant green, and there is a faint scent of smoke from barbecues over the lawns. How do these go together under one God, the horrors of Auschwitz and the comfort of this time and place?

At the least, there is this. We live in a culture where people on television rant that our nation is degraded because of shifts in our health care program, or because gay people will be married. It is a sign of our affluence and comfort that these issues can be seen as great concerns. If there is a God, and we believe in him, we must come to that God with an appreciation that there is and has been cruel brutality and real tragedy in this world, and we in the comfortable suburbs where the smoke comes from backyard grills do not suffer it.